When it comes to promoting the city of Nottingham, Robin Hood, the traditional crowd-pleaser, no longer takes centre stage. The city's legendary hero may once have pulled in the punters, but these days it's better known for shopping, a massive student population (so much so that the average age is below anywhere else in the UK) and for its nightlife - making it a haven for stag and hen parties and a target for the anti-binge drinking lobby.
Nottingham isn't known as a culinary hot spot either. Until now, that is. Today it boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant, thanks to Sat Bains at the Hotel des Clos, and a restaurant population that has doubled in five years to 400. And while many of the restaurants are familiar brands (Wagamama's, the Living Room, Bluu, Loch Fyne), there is also a growing independent restaurant community, which prides itself on its innovation and style.
To back it up, Nottingham now has its own restaurant awards (in their second year), where the public vote for their favourite restaurant, lunch menu, wine list, etc, with a judging panel deciding between the final five in each category. Held in June, the awards were founded by former food TV producers and restaurant PRs Jocelyn Platt and Kerry Mathie, who had identified an explosion in the market.
"When I came back to Nottingham after living away, the restaurant scene had changed completely," Platt says. "There used to be just one good restaurant, Sonny's. Other than that, there were just downmarket burger grills. Then Tim Hart arrived. He owned Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall, and saw that Nottingham was ripe for the plucking.
"Hart's led the way, and since then the restaurant scene has doubled - but you still can't be sure of getting quality and that's why we set up the restaurant awards. We thought it was time for some healthy competition, it raised the game and it meant the independents had more of a say collectively, because it's usually the chains that get all the money."
The credit for kick-starting Nottingham's restaurant scene mostly goes to Rebecca Mascarenhas and James Harris, who opened Sonny's 15 years ago. It introduced Nottingham to modern British cuisine and contemporary decor. The restaurant, with its wooden floors, white walls and modern British menu took a while to get established, but after a couple of difficult years it became the only place to go for food, according to many in the city.
Tim Hart arrived in Nottingham in 1996, in the midst of a £700m inner-city regeneration scene. He bought a derelict part of the old General Hospital in Park Row, and opened an 80-seat restaurant a year later. After a few months the restaurant was heaving, he says.
"I was looking at Conran's restaurants and Bank, which offered good food for a large number of people at an upper to middle price scale. Although Nottingham had always had a lot of restaurants, nobody was addressing that area," he recalls.
"At the time there wasn't a single entry in the Good Food Guide in places such as Nottingham, Birmingham and Manchester because people didn't live in the centre of these cities. But the regeneration of Nottingham meant this was changing. I built the restaurant in the middle of a derelict place and it's now a smart residential area. The restaurant scene in Nottingham reflects that."
Today Hart's does about 900 covers a week at an average of £34 per head, and there's a 32-bedroom hotel as well. Meanwhile, the regeneration of other areas in Nottingham - the Lace Market in particular, as well as substantial brownfield sites - mean there's still space to grow, particularly for trendy residential housing, restaurants and bars.
New restaurants and bars open (and close) weekly and as the city's restaurant awards are being planned for next year, so the restaurant fraternity in Nottingham is gearing itself up for the challenge. And despite initial grumblings from some about the judging process, most restaurateurs agree the awards are a positive move for the industry.
Sat Bains, who won a Special Achievement Award this year, says the awards are pushing up standards and challenging the independent restaurants. But he warns there's a lot of improvement to be made before the city can be thought of as a gastronomic centre.
"There are still a lot of people in Nottingham charging high prices for mediocre food," Bains says. "This is a nice cosmopolitan city but a lot of the restaurants here are dated: there's a lot of repetition with the menus and some restaurants are in a time warp. There are a lot of good chefs in this city but I think they aren't pushing themselves as much as they should.
"The irony is that having a Michelin star in Nottingham has recently put the area in the gastronomic book, but does that mean the scene has changed that much? I don't know. It's a massive privilege, but it's also a weight on our shoulders."
The Lace market
The Lace Market wasn't always the cool, desirable residential area it is now. Up to the 1950s, it was the industrial heart of Nottingham, an area of densely built red-brick factories where the city's lace was manufactured. When the last factories closed in the 1950s, the area was left derelict until the 1990s when it received a multi-million-pound face-lift.
Today it's a stylish environment for some of the city's best bars and restaurants. It's also the site of the city's first boutique hotel, the Lace Market, set up four-and-a-half years ago by Robert Beacham and John Whitehead.
The hotel started life as the Grill Rooms, a fine-dining restaurant, which Beacham and Whitehead bought for £400,000. Soon a hotel was set up beside it, and it now has 42 rooms. The pair, both Hertfordshire born, had been in Nottingham for four years and had started their careers as franchisees of the bistro restaurant chain Pierre Victoire. The chain went bust, but Beacham and Whitehead kept the name for their restaurant and it is still going strong. They now have two more, in Derby and Leicester.
"Pierre Victoire was a simple concept and offered us lots of money," Beacham says. "We whitewashed the walls and put in second-hand furniture and it was extremely successful. It was at a time when there were hardly any restaurants in Nottingham - just Sonny's and the usual Chineses and Beefeaters.
"We were looking for venues and realised we wanted to get away from the bistro," Whitehead continues. "We were attracted by the high end. It was glamorous and the Grill Rooms came up for sale. Clive Dixon was the chef, and he'd come from a country house hotel with a Michelin star. We thought we knew what we were doing."
But the restaurant didn't live up to expectations and the locals didn't like it, so the pair made changes. They simplified the restaurant, renamed it Merchants and constructed a solid brasserie menu with the angle on provincial French food.
Patrick Tweedie, former sous chef at the Gavroche, was brought in to cook a brasserie-style menu, serving dishes such as oyster and coriander ravioli in a cockle and broad bean foaming sauce.
The restaurant and bar received a £450,000 David Collins refurbishment at the beginning of the year to create a "French brasserie with a contemporary twist". It now sports lace wallpaper, with a Canadian pressed tin ceiling, chain-mail lampshades, red leather banquettes and a 12-foot mirror weighing half a tonne.
"We're doing well," Whitehead smiles. "Nottingham has become a wealthy city. It's vibrant with a good dining culture, and although we appear as a big city, it's still a regional town. Hotel du Vin and Malmaison looked at Nottingham, but weren't interested. That would have crucified us.
"Serious businesses such as Conran have all looked here but there was not enough traffic, although the eating-out culture here is still growing. Try booking a table on Friday night - you can't get in anywhere."
The Lace Market Hotel
General manager: Mark Cox
Average room rate: £90
Covers: 80-90 weekends for dinner
Head chef: Patrick Tweedie
Chino Latino Yossi Eliyahoo, creator of Chino Latino, chose to combine Japanese and Latin styles to bring something new to the Nottingham scene. The restaurant and bar, attached to the Park Plaza hotel, was put together by general manager Eliyahoo and the hotel chain's owner, Rafael Shaul, 18 months ago.
Head chef Ed Kasikarangool, who has worked around the world developing fusion food concepts Mika, Yakimono and Giacometti, has brought together a brigade of chefs from Nobu, Zuma and Clapham restaurant Tsumani, including Shinji Makamura (from Nobu and Tsumani). The bar, created by consultancy the Gorgeous Group, offers a huge range of cocktails, doubles only and salsa into the night.
Eliyahoo came to the UK two years ago to develop the concept and found himself in Nottingham by default. As the Park Plaza on Maid Marion Way was about to open, it was decided to launch the concept there before London.
"I've been in the industry for 17 years," Eliyahoo says, "working in Tel Aviv and New York, when I was asked to create a new concept for the chain. I found myself in Nottingham. I knew I wanted to do Far Eastern fusion food and realised that Nottingham needed it. There's nothing like that here, although you can find Japanese food all over the world. I wanted to educate Nottingham people."
Chino Latino soon became a hit. After two months, business started to pick up, with the slow weekday business in the city being boosted by the hotel's weekday corporate guests. Now the restaurant is fully booked every evening at the weekends, and it makes up 25% of the total revenue of the hotel. Next step for Eliyahoo is to open a Chino in Leeds before the end of the year, and there are plans to take the concept to London.
Head chef: Ed Kasikarangool
Average spend with drinks: £35
Kitchen brigade: seven
Front of house staff: 13
For Mancunian Duncan Craig, who came to Nottingham more than 10 years ago as an area manager with Eldridge Pope, the city is the perfect size to set up business.
"In 1993 there were only two places to eat. It was backward, but it was big enough to attract a market and small enough to keep in touch with a number of businesses at once. I knew where it was heading and knew Nottingham had always punched above its weight. It's perceived as being forward-thinking and is receptive to new ideas."
Craig first became a sleeping partner for Scruffeys, a pub-restaurant aimed at students, serving freshly cooked produce and big portions. With his partner Gareth Kirwan, he went on to open another bar, Brass Monkey, in 1999 and bought a second Scruffey's in 2000.
When the opportunity to take over the restaurant, bar and caf‚ space at the Nottingham Playhouse came up last year, Craig realised he was in the right place at the right time.
Cast had been a Tyne Mill pub since 1991, a run-down pub that was incongruous with architect Peter Moro's ground-breaking 1960s design. Heritage Lottery funding put £700,000 into the project, while Craig had to invest £300,000 to redesign the listed space.
"It was a big opportunity. There are three things the theatre has. First, it's a captive market. There are 160,000 people through here a year and if you get it right, you can get the pre-theatre spend, which has a significant impact on turnover. Second, it's in the business district of Nottingham. And third, it's central but there's free parking."
With help from Ashley Walter, founder of World Service (see page 27), Craig needed to find a style that reflected the needs of the building. It was in the business district and the city centre so needed to be accessible to a range of people. The modernist restaurant and bar was completed last year. A deli was added in January this year.
The style of food is modern British brasserie. Executive chef Chris Hooton has helped design the menus and kitchen and describes the menu as a back-to-basics one - affordable, with good-quality produce. Ingredients are sourced from local suppliers and from Rungis market, in France.
"It's simple, that's the key to it," he says. "There's a small menu of dishes to get people talking. Crab hush puppies, prawns in paper, beef shiitake, sticky prawns, and platters, a mix of things to get people talking and be sociable. We want to get people talking because some Nottingham folk can be narrow minded. A lot of restaurants offer same run-of-the-mill stuff."
Cast is hitting the levels Craig expected, bringing in about £28,000 a week for 60 seats at an average spend of £25 to £30, £15 for lunch, £15 for pre-theatre. He has no plans, as yet, to open any more places.
"I need to build up a reputation and have a good summer," he says. "We're full every Friday and Saturday, and do OK while the theatre is on, but we have to build the non-theatre trade. With our prices and standard of food we should be full every night."
The newest bar in the Cornerhouse, a complex of restaurants, bars, and cinemas in the middle of Nottingham's shopping centre, is Sausage, a 100-seat bar and restaurant designed around its key offerings - beer and sausages.
It's the brainchild of Ben Smith, who with help from Nottingham designers Philip Watts Design, came up with the idea to replace a run-down Henry J Beans. Smith, who worked in the Lace Market hotel, as well as bars Opium and Fashion, had decided to go it alone and with family money bought the site on the corner of the Cornerhouse.
"Henry J Beans was filthy so we had to present to Cornerhouse committee before we got the lease," he explains. "They had seen Henry J Beans attract the wrong clientele - there wasn't a single piece of furniture that wasn't ripped to pieces when we took over."
Senior designer Stuart Watt also worked on the concept: "We wanted to create something different from Henry J Beans and wanted it to be humorous. We discussed various options, starting with a range of beers that soon developed into an Alsace-German theme. It snowballed from there."
The designers gutted the site, then put in glass walls around the restaurant with oak beams and cedar panelling on the ceiling. Adding a lighting raft and pine cladding, they were able to create a daytime and night-time feel when required. The only original piece left in the place is a back wall of bricks, now a backdrop to the DJ booth. Four circular booths, sausage stools, benches and pig-snout branding were added throughout.
Sausage opened in February, after a refurbishment costing £350,000. There's a dedicated sausage menu, with Bratwurst in a bap, classic bangers and mash and a 3ft special sausage served with tomato chutney and creamy mash dips, alongside sandwiches, salads, steaks and breakfasts. More than 40 bottled beers from Germany, the Czech Republic and other European countries are also offered, plus cocktails. Average spend is £8 to £10 on food.
Trade could be better, but as Smith says, it's a long-term project: "The Cornerhouse attracts a lot of people but at the moment we are on the wrong corner, opposite a multi-storey car park and it is a job to get people to come around. So, we're looking at it long term. If we can keep it open for two years, the car park will come down, a square is being put in and we'll see a big comeback. We've already been offered a site in Leeds but we need to make this work first."
World Service Around the corner from Hart's - but a world away from it - is World Service, a 90-cover restaurant, packed with Indonesian furniture and artefacts from around the world. It also has an award-winning cocktail bar and Eastern/fusion menu.
Ashley Walter and partner Philip Morgan bought the leasehold to the building four years ago for £350,000. It had been a private members club, whose membership was dwindling (although it still has a room for meetings) and hadn't been refurbished since the 1960s. The brief given to Sakmoto and Ball, designers of China Whites and Tamangang, was to create an eccentric old English gentleman's club.
"I spent a lot of time travelling as a hobby so I wanted the restaurant to have an eclectic look, going against all that was going on at the time. Very anti-Conran," Walter says. "We felt it was the right time for Nottingham. Five years ago, the main restaurant was Hart's. It set the place alight and did things properly - and he set the standard. I thank him for raising the game and I think a lot of people have come in on the back of that. But basically, Hart's was full and Sonny's was full, so that's why we went down the fusion route."
Walter admits the restaurant was a "slow burner" at the beginning but it eventually developed a loyal crowd, who have voted it Best Restaurant in the Nottingham restaurant awards for two years running.
"I still can't stop smiling," Walter says, two weeks after getting his awards. "We've got a lot of loyalty and I think that's the winning point about World Service. We have created a great ambiance, which isn't just about great food and service. We offer the complete package - cocktails, a nice meal, the whole experience - and we don't turn tables. Financially it makes sense; people are drinking cocktails here before their meals so the drinks spend goes through the roof."
World Service is fully booked nearly every night, Walter says, with bookings increasing by 25% after the first year's award. Average spend is about £50 for dinner and £27 for lunch. Executive chef Chris Elson and general manager Daniel Lindsay are now partners, while the menu has moved from fusion to simpler cooking. Dishes include: ham hock, chicken liver and baby leek terrine with green bean salad; crab arancini with gazpacho sauce; seared salmon with beetroot, peppercorn and orange salsa; and slow-roast belly pork with r"sti potato and Bramley apple sauce.
Walter, who also helped to set up Cast at the Nottingham Playhouse, has since opened the Oak House in Stamford and is about to launch a new Japanese-inspired lounge bar and restaurant, Geisha, in the Lace Market.
"I still think Nottingham is wide open for restaurants. There's no Italian or Spanish here; there are no steakhouses, and there is an audience that is growing more sophisticated. A lot of chains will come in, but this city seems to like independents, the hands-on feel of it."
Owned by: Ashley Walter
Head chef: Preston Walker
Average spend: £50 for dinner/£27 for lunch, including wine
Covers: 900 a week